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Atypical Social Attention and Emotional Face Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Insights From Face Scanning and Pupillometry

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Atypical Social Attention and Emotional Face Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Insights From Face Scanning and Pupillometry

Debra L Reisinger et al. Front Integr Neurosci.

Abstract

Social attention deficits are a hallmark characteristic within autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and have been hypothesized to have cascading effects on emotion recognition. Eye-tracking methodology has emerged as a potentially reliable, feasible, and sensitive biomarker for examining core phenotypic features of ASD; however, these findings are mixed with regards to measuring treatment change in clinical trials. The present study aimed to assess the utility of an eye-tracking paradigm to discriminate between clinical groups in social attention and emotion recognition through face scanning and pupillometry. The present study also assessed the reliability of this paradigm within the ASD sample to further our understanding of the utility of eye-tracking for future clinical trials. Participants included 42 individuals with ASD, 29 developmental disability (DD) controls, and 62 typically developing (TD) controls between 3 and 25 years of age. An emotional faces eye-tracking paradigm was administered to all participants, with the ASD group completing the paradigm a second time approximately 2 months later. Participants' average proportion of looking and number of fixations to specific areas of interest (AOI) were examined along with changes in pupil reactivity while viewing different emotional faces. Results suggest atypical face-scanning through a reduced proportion of looking and the number of fixations toward the eyes in the ASD group regardless of the emotion that was presented. Further, pupillometry measures were able to detect increases in pupil dilation to happy faces in the ASD group. Lastly, test-retest reliability coefficients varied between the poor and excellent range based on the mechanism assessed, with the proportion of looking demonstrating the highest reliability coefficients. These findings build on the promise of eye-tracking as a feasible and reliable biomarker for identifying social attention and emotion recognition deficits in ASD. Detecting differences in emotion recognition explicitly through facial scanning was not as clear. Specific mechanisms within the eye-tracking paradigm may be viable options for assessing treatment-specific outcomes.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; emotional faces; eye tracking; pupillometry; social attention.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
An example of a scrambled (A), happy (B), calm (C), and fearful (D) face used in the emotional faces paradigm with the areas of interests (AOI’s) outlined in black.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Mean proportion of looking to each AOI region by group for all emotional faces. Proportion of looking is reported as percentages and error bars represent SEM. TD, typically developing; DD, developmentally delayed; ASD, autism spectrum disorder; **p < 0.05.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Heat maps of average duration fixation on a calm face image for a subset of TD (A), DD (B), and ASD (C), participants.
Figure 4
Figure 4
Mean fixation count to each AOI region by group for all emotional faces. Error bars represent SEM. TD, typical developing; DD, developmentally delayed; ASD, autism spectrum disorder; **p < 0.05.
Figure 5
Figure 5
Relative change in pupil diameter (mm) between scrambled face to calm, happy, and fearful faces across 250-ms intervals, by the group.

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